Having heard Iggy’s story, the one character in the Water Margin that wandered into my mind was Squire Chai Jin. The squire, the most noble hero in Liangshan, was a descendant of Emperor Chai Rong of Later Zhou during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Emperor Chai Rong, also known by his temple name as Shizong, abdicated in favour of Emperor Taizu, founder of the Song Dynasty. So, in return, Squire Chai was provided with an iron charter that bestowed on him and his offspring perpetual wealth, protection and respect. He first featured in the Liangshan Marsh story when Lu Da and Lin Chong, important heroes of the marsh, were fleeing from constables sent by Marshall Gao Qiu to kill Lin Chong. Chai Jin’s reputation spread far and wide. He was famous for his generosity and kindness; he enjoyed opening his vast estate to visiting scholars and virtuous travellers in need of food, wine, and shelter so that he could meet interesting and well-travelled people. He was well-known for helping anyone he welcomed into his house with money as well. As such, Chai Jin was described as born with ‘dragon eyebrows and phoenix eyes, white teeth and vermilion lips.’
Iggy’s story starts with his great-grandma Maria Da Souza. The King of Siam persecuted Christians during much of the 18th century. In the 1820s, Maria’s family left their Portuguese-Siamese community with the help of Father Pascual and moved to Port Quedah. They then moved to the island of Penang, following the establishment of Penang as the base for Francis Light’s East India Company. By the time the British took over Malacca in 1824 from the Dutch, the Catholic Church was already well rooted, with the community swelling with labourers from India especially Tamils from Southern India and economic migrants from southern China who were attracted to the Malay archipelago which boasted of tin mines in Larut and Taiping, rubber plantations, vast acreage of pepper and other spices and important trade routes to the ports of Penang and Singapore. Iggy’s grandfather, Wong Fei Hing came from the province of Kwangtung and through the port of Canton arrived on a junk boat as a singkek, an indentured servant, to the Ghee Hin clan. He landed in Penang and worked as a coolie in the Pulau Tikus market. He worked his butt off to pay off his debt and once freed from his indenture, he started a business dealing in meat at the market.
The Catholic Church, being a close-knit community, established schools for the boys and girls around the church. The church was an attap structure and served both as a community hall and a place of worship. It is now the Kelawai Road cemetery. When the church outgrew its location, the Eurasian community gave its priest a piece of land between College General and Burma Road. The present Immaculate Conception Church stands where the old brick church was erected. The surrounding areas are what is now called Kampung Serani (Serani Village). The Serani are of mixed Portuguese and Malaccan descent with a strong Dutch and English heritage. They are also known as the Kristang or Christian people.
Great-grandma Maria, a spinster, was a pious woman with dark brown skin. Her short height was typical of an average Siamese woman of Songkla whose clothes and wooden clogs failed to give the illusion that she was taller than five feet. In her sparse wardrobe that was impregnated with the scent of incense hung her favourite clothes – sarong and baju kebaya panjang. She wore a bun or kondek hair style. A no-nonsense woman, she believed people should show mutual respect. She treated others with courtesy and respect and expected nothing less in return. Having fled persecution and sacrificed her previous life of comfort and relative luxury, she adopted an orphan girl from the convent in Light Street to keep her company. The girl, of Indian stock, was named Mary and she grew up in the Serani community. No one asked about her race as long as she was a Catholic. In the 1860s and ’70s, all things, big or small, had to be referred to the priest. As was a custom in those days, every eligible bachelor was sought after, and marriage was inevitable for a man. Great-grandma Maria arranged for Mary to be married to Wong Fei Hing after he was baptised with the name Peter. Peter kept his pigtail braids as was traditional for all Chinese men in the days of the Qing dynasty. He bore an uncanny resemblance to the legendary Kungfu master, Ip Man. It would not be surprising if he was indeed an adept martial arts exponent, his alert but hard, dour face with a crooked right ear (perhaps broken from a fight?) could not bother to smile for the camera. To have his photo taken, he chose his favourite beige changshan or long gown. It was not resplendent but formal enough for a Manchu custom. Peter was a good Catholic and a hard-working man. Peter and Mary had five children. The eldest was Iggy’s uncle, Uncle Joseph who later became Yusoff. Following him in quick succession were Aunt Catherine, Aunt Maria and Iggy’s dad, Daniel. He was born on 8th May 1888 in Kampung Serani, Pulau Tikus. The fifth was stillborn.
Daniel Louis Wong was brought up in the Serani community and went to St Xavier’s Branch Primary School at the Noah’s Ark beside the church. He did his secondary schooling at St Xavier’s Institution in town. In the 1900s, SXI was the school for all Catholic boys. In that school, the cane ruled the day – the teachers viewed corporal punishment favourably, no one thought it was wrong to inflict physical punishment on kids. If a kid was caned, he had better not complain to his parents, for they will cane him for getting caned. All the children in the Wong household suffered in silence and learned the notion that discipline was not something that could be compromised. As money was hard to get, they learned the ways to live a frugal life. Joseph, the eldest boy, mixed with the kids in the Malay kampong in Tanjong Tolong and unsurprisingly, he got hitched up to a Malay girl in the village. He converted to Islam and became a Malay. In those days, one could convert one’s race easily, as all that was required was a name change. So, Joseph became Yusoff. His family lives in Gombak today. Peter, although a tough disciplinarian, did not begrudge his son’s apostasy. When he passed away, he left his business to his eldest son, Yusoff but it went bust soon after, as the kind soul that he was had been swayed by the easy-going and relaxed way of life in the Malay community. “Smoking rokok daun was what he did well,” according to Iggy’s dad.
Great-grandma Maria had fortunes left by the Royal House of Songkla which she gave to the church where they in return cared for her. This was where I started to connect this story with Squire Chai Jin. To this day, Iggy’s family still has links with the abbotts of the Siamese Temple in Bangkok Lane. After school, Daniel Wong went to work in the General Post Office and started in the mailroom in town when he was twenty years old in 1908. The following year, he married Mary Lim at St. Louis Church in Taiping, whom he met through a matchmaker. The couple bore ten children of whom three died at an early age. Not much was spoken of Mary after she died suddenly from an illness. Daniel’s second wife also died quite early. He worked in the post office for twenty years and retired from government service at forty years of age. He then ventured into business and started Kuching Mosaic Works in the area bordered by the streets which he named Kuching (cat in Malay) Lane and Pulau Tikus (rat island) Lane just before 1929. His belief in hard work and discipline made him a successful businessman.
He told Iggy horrible facts about the history of Penang, having lived through both world wars. Iggy remembers his dad’s story about the Battle of Penang during which the German cruiser Emden attacked the Russian and French ships on 28 October 1914 and blew them up. “The bodies and carnage floating on the sea made red by blood was a time you would not want to live through,” he said. Sad to say, Daniel Wong’s next war experience was even worse. During WW2, the Japanese bombed Georgetown in December 1941. The people were helpless and defenceless during the invasion, as the British quickly surrendered in just a few days. Many of the town folk fled to Pulau Tikus where they dug bomb shelters and hid under houses. The war in Penang was a one-sided affair. The RAF had Buffalo aircrafts but they could hardly get them off the ground. The fighter planes were decimated as they sat idle like sitting ducks at a funfair, except the carnival was the joint Royal Air Force base and Royal Australian Air Force base in Butterworth. Many dead bodies littered the so-called military stronghold of the British army. Many of the living were not spared either. The Brits left the locals to face the Japanese. Iggy’s mum, Cheah See Hoon, who at the time was a 20-year-old unmarried girl said, “The British took off like cowards and the aura of the white man’s supremacy was forever changed.” She called them “bloody useless buggers.”
“The Japanese soldiers were the most brutal and heartless people ever to conquer Penang,” Iggy’s dad told him. His parents told him gruesome stories of rape, murder, decapitation and fear as well as torture – the Seranis and Chinese fared the worst. During the Japanese occupation, life was hard, food was hard to come by, and people were constantly harassed by the Kempetai. See Hoon, an attractive girl, had an intense fear of the occupiers after many of her Eurasian and Chinese friends were tortured or disappeared. Iggy remembers his dad’s stories about the French priest who suffered the most, from the ‘water treatment’ dished out by his torturers. See Hoon’s brothers were rounded up and sent to Thailand to build the Siam-Burma Railway. Iggy’s schoolfriend, Gerard Loh, also had a similar story about his father, John Loh, who was forced to work on the actual ‘Death Railway’ where he lost his leg in Kanchanaburi, when he was aged 18. Nothing could efface the brutal hardship and suffering the teenage boy saw and felt, but his faith was his salvation. As Gerard Loh said, “It is a pretty long story of a man who came through life with a physical handicap that may have destroyed him but had a faith in God that never faltered to his last breath.” Years after the war, many survivors of the war still visited Iggy’s mum and dad to share their horror stories. The hatred for the Japanese was total and deep rooted. The one big positive gained from their trauma was that their shared stories and bitter experiences helped form a close kinship amongst those friends. Till the day he died, Iggy’s dad kept a deep dislike for the Japanese – he refused to buy anything that was labelled Made-in-Japan. But, he did not let the evil and despicable acts of their captors destroy him. He espoused to his children to be kind and helpful even if there were others who would take advantage of their kindness and generosity.
After the Japanese surrendered, he began his coffin-making business and started Morden Casket. He provided aid to many people trying to get back on their feet and to make life liveable again. His magnanimous spirit and charity was another reminder of Squire Chai. He also learned from the swift capitulation of the British during the Japanese invasion that the white man was no better than any other person. Their words of reassurance and guarantees were nothing but empty rhetoric. Similarly, the Kempetai were cruel and crass. The Japanese banana notes became worthless overnight. Every change of power makes one wiser and smarter. In 1950, he married again at the age of 63, to See Hoon, who was by then 27 years old. He knew her as she was the sister of his daughter’s husband, Hin Jin. So, his son-in-law became his brother-in-law. There was much objection from his children from his earlier marriages, but as they say, love conquers all. From this union, they had Xavier (who died an infant at 11 months) , Rosalind (b. 1955), Iggy (b. 1958) and Ann (b.1960). Iggy’s dad built a mansion at 427 Burma Road between Kuching lane and Pulau Tikus Lane. It was a beautiful stately house with a big well-maintained garden and several servants quarters; Iggy was especially pleased with the tiles his dad designed. “They were a checkerboard style,” he said. Iggy was born in the house. The children all loved the house and the garden gave them ample space to play. They had many people looking after them, since ‘them’ was a big number. The kids never considered the workers and nannies as servants but as their aunties and uncles. This pocket of land and mansion with the numerous servants and maids also reminded me of Squire Chai’s vast estate.
Iggy’s dad was a disciplined and pious man, he followed the Ten Commandments to the letter. He was 72 years old when Ann, his 17th and last child, was born. A hard worker, he built his business with time and sweat and expected all in the family to do the same. He was hard and tough but harder still on himself. Discipline was his mantra. “A good practical education and knowledge will lead you to success,” he often repeated it to his children. Bad behaviour was not tolerated at all and they were not allowed to use the four-letter swear word for copulation. Whoever uttered it would be swiftly caned and soap rammed down the mouth to literally clean it. Iggy’s dad worked from before the sun was up till dusk every day and never missed his daily prayers. The kids all joined him during prayer. He always made time to read their school work each day. When he turned 80, he decided to give up smoking and drinking. His liquor cabinet was donated to the church. “I think the priest had a jolly good time,” Iggy said. Occasionally, he would visit the convent and schools to check on Iggy and his sisters. Iggy’s dad was a very strict man who expected a very precise timetable to be adhered to at home, much like Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. The kids had to follow a strict protocol when it came to eating, studying and behaving at home and at functions such as birthday parties, they were required to sit quietly while the adults danced, sang, drank and smoked the night away.
Who you are in life is your own doing.Daniel Louis Wong